Parallel thalamic pathways for whisking and touch signals in the rat

PLoS Biol. 2006 May;4(5):e124. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040124. Epub 2006 Apr 18.


In active sensation, sensory information is acquired via movements of sensory organs; rats move their whiskers repetitively to scan the environment, thus detecting, localizing, and identifying objects. Sensory information, in turn, affects future motor movements. How this motor-sensory-motor functional loop is implemented across anatomical loops of the whisker system is not yet known. While inducing artificial whisking in anesthetized rats, we recorded the activity of individual neurons from three thalamic nuclei of the whisker system, each belonging to a different major afferent pathway: paralemniscal, extralemniscal (a recently discovered pathway), or lemniscal. We found that different sensory signals related to active touch are conveyed separately via the thalamus by these three parallel afferent pathways. The paralemniscal pathway conveys sensor motion (whisking) signals, the extralemniscal conveys contact (touch) signals, and the lemniscal pathway conveys combined whisking-touch signals. This functional segregation of anatomical pathways raises the possibility that different sensory-motor processes, such as those related to motion control, object localization, and object identification, are implemented along different motor-sensory-motor loops.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Male
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Thalamic Nuclei / anatomy & histology
  • Thalamic Nuclei / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*